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Ch. 3. The First World War: Resistance rises from the ashes

posted 27 Mar 2011, 10:36 by Admin uk

The new International is rising up,

as logical as a law of nature,

with its leaders if they follow us,

without its leaders if they hesitate,

against its leaders if they oppose us.”1

Stormklockan, the organ of the Swedish

Young Social Democrats 1909-1917

The outset of the First World War was a massive defeat for the interna­tional Labour Movement. Its leaders joined up with the capitalists, the Second International dissolved, parliamentary democracy was severely cur­tailed, and millions of young men were plunged into a blood bath. Yet re­gardless of all these difficulties the anti-war movement came to life again.

A new beginning

In March 1915, socialists from countries at war with each other gathered for the first time since the collapse of the Second International. Clara Zetkin, a leader of the German Social Democratic Party, had organised several international women’s conferences for the Second International. Now she convened a conference at Berne in Switzerland. Twenty-nine women activ­ists from Germany, England, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, and Russia met in secret in Switzerland. The elected leadership of the Second International, the International Socialist Bureau or ISB, was hostile, and the German and French party leadership forbade its members to attend. The Conference Manifesto was widely distributed. 200 000 copies circulated il­legally in Germany.2

A month later young socialists met. A conference was held, despite the opposition of the official leadership of the Socialist Youth International, of youth delegates from nine different national youth organisations. The conference voted to re-establish the Socialist Youth International and set up a secretariat in Zurich. The “Liebknecht fund” was launched to pay for the work, and a quarterly magazine Jugend-Internationale was published. The Youth International organised the first international day of protest in Oc­tober 1915.

The next important step, in September 1915, was a conference convened in Zimmerwald, a small Swiss village. The initiative was taken by the leader­ship of the Italian Socialist Party. At first they tried to convince the ISB to organise it, but the ISB would not be budged. It was attended by official representatives from parties and party factions. Delegates from Britain and some from France were unable to attend because their governments stopped them from leaving the country. In contrast to the giant rallies that had taken place before the war, only scattered remnants of the Interna­tional attended the Swiss meeting.

The conference adopted two policy statements. One was a manifesto written by Leon Trotsky, urging the workers of Europe to end the truce in the class struggle and oppose government war credits. The Manifesto called for peace without any annexation of territory, based on self-determination for all.

The Manifesto was adopted unanimously, but there was a group of delegates who considered it insufficient. They called themselves the Zimmerwald Left and consisted of Vladimir Lenin and Gregory Zinoviev representing the Russian Social Democrats, Karl Radek representing the Poles, Paul Winter the Latvians, and Ture Nerman and Zäta Höglund for the youth organisa­tions in Norway and Sweden. They issued a statement that they voted for the Manifesto because they saw it as a “call to struggle and because we want to march forward in this struggle arm in arm with the other sections of the International”. However, they added that they considered that the Manifesto should have contained a condemnation of all the social democratic leaders who supported the war. Nor did they think the Manifesto explained clearly enough the methods that should be used to fight war.

Few people attended the Zimmerwald conference, and those who did were not totally in agreement. Yet they managed to draw up a set of fundamental guidelines for the continuation of the struggle, and several of those present would in time play a key role in their respective countries. The ideas that emerged from Zimmerwald provided the basis for a mass struggle against the war, not least in Sweden, Russia, and Germany.

The anti-war struggle in Sweden

In the years prior to the First World War, the Swedish monarchy, right-wing parties and military had been urging for the country to rearm. In 1910, the right-wing government initiated negotiations with the German government regarding a Swedish-German military pact against Russia.

This drive for rearmament came to be known as activism. The campaign sought an ‘active’ foreign policy or, as it was phrased later, “courageous backing of the German side”.3 Besides agitating in the press and at meetings, the campaign consisted of fund-raising events to help finance the building of armoured ships. It enjoyed the support of King Gustav V and of his German-born queen, Victoria. Activism culminated in a ‘peasant’s rally’ in Stockholm on 6 February 1914, attended by 30 000 peasants and others from different parts of Sweden. They demanded that Sweden’s defence be strengthened immediately, in view of the tense world situation. The King ap­peared in the palace courtyard to declare his support for the demonstrators.

The Swedish Labour Movement had learnt from the events of 1905, and reacted swiftly. Two days later, the Stockholm branch of the Social Democratic Party organised a workers’ rally in response to the ‘peasant’s rally’. Despite the cold grey weather, some 50 000 people marched to the government offices to demand that military spending be cut and to protest against the monarchy. The police identified the Social Democratic mayor of the city as one of those who had cried “Long live the republic!” For this, he was taken to court and fined 100 crowns. The sum was col­lected in 1 öre coins (one hundreth of a crown) at meetings around the country. “Among the workers, there was a fighting spirit and a belief in victory”, wrote Zäta Höglund, describing the period immediately after the march. “The Social Democrats launched a huge campaign against the rearmament propaganda and the royal coup. During the Easter weekend alone, the Young Social Democrats held 400 meetings to protest against militarism. The halls were packed and discussion usually continued far into the night.”4

But as war approached, the leaders of the Labour Movement came under increasing pressure to fall in behind the ‘nation’, i.e. the bourgeoisie. On the day war broke out, Hjalmar Branting, leader of the Social Democratic Party, addressed an election meeting. There, and in a telegram he later dis­patched to the rightist government then in power, he declared that “in the face of war, the domestic social quarrels of each and every nation, however severe they may be as a result of class divisions, must for the moment be of secondary consideration.” Just like fellow bureaucrats across the continent, he was offering a party truce to the bourgeoisie. However, Branting could go no further than that. The struggle of workers, and the strong and ex­perienced opposition in his party, again blocked the Swedish government’s intention to go to war. So a compromise was made. There was a truce, Branting remained party leader, and Sweden stayed neutral. This was the origin of Swedish neutrality, a policy that all governments were forced to pursue – at least officially – for the rest of the century.

However, the matter was not settled once and for all. The right-wing parties continued to press for Swedish participation in the war, and the Labour Movement continued to resist. Early in 1916, there were rumours that a general mobilisation was planned. In response, the Miners’ Union discussed going on strike and refusing the call-up. There were calls within the Labour Movement for the Social Democrats to convene an extra con­gress to discuss what action to take. The Young Social Democrats wrote to the party executive requesting this. After several months without a re­ply, they tired of waiting and called a workers’ peace congress themselves. They invited all organisations that supported workers’ action against warmongers to attend.

At about the same time, an article published in Stormklockan, the paper of the Young Socialists, caused a major stir. Erik Hedén, one of the most re­spected Social Democratic journalists of the day, wrote under the heading “Time for a general strike. We either act now – or go to war!”5

The invitation to the workers’ peace congress and the article in Stormklockan drew criticism from the Social Democratic party executive. They threatened the organisers with expulsion from the party. A members’ meeting of the Stockholm branch was held to discuss the situation, attended by 600 peo­ple. On one side stood Branting and on the other Erik Hedén and Zeth Höglund. Hedén won a slight majority for his proposal that the meeting issue a statement regretting that the party executive had failed to call a peace congress and expressing sympathy for the Young Social Democrats’ initia­tive in doing so. The meeting also urged the party executive and the national secretariat to convene an extra congress without further ado.

The workers’ peace conference organised by the Young Social Democrats was held in Stockholm in March 1916. It was well attended, not only by its own supporters but also by local party branches, trade unions and temper­ance lodges. The 265 delegates represented organisations with a total of 40 000 members. A manifesto was adopted calling on the Labour Movement to respond to the plans for war with its own plans for mass extra-parlia­mentary actions. Two days after the congress ended, charges of treason were brought against Höglund, Hedén and Ivan Oljelund. The inclusion of Oljelund in these proceedings was remarkable as he had been the only delegate at the congress to oppose a general strike!

The trial was a farce. But lack of evidence did not prevent the court from sentencing the accused to imprisonment and the forfeiture of their civil rights. Once again, those who had fought for peace were forced to go to jail for their views. Zeth Höglund faced not only three years’ imprison­ment, but loss of his seat in Parliament. Protests poured in from at home and abroad. On appeal, Hedén was found not guilty, while Höglund’s and Oljelund’s prison sentences were reduced to 12 months and eight months respectively. While Höglund was in jail, Branting took the opportunity of sacking him as a full-time official for the party.

Russia: revolution stops war

In Russia, the world war immediately sparked off protests. In many parts of Russia, workers went on strike on mobilisation day. Both the Bolshevik and Menshevik Social Democratic6 deputies voted in the Duma (Russian parliament) against funding the war effort. The Bolsheviks also waged a campaign in factories and elsewhere, which led to the entire Bolshevik par­liamentary group being deported to Siberia. Nonetheless, the Bolsheviks continued to fight against the war, and they strove to bring down the gov­ernment. They got widespread support.

The heavy cost of the war was felt throughout Russian society. As the war progressed, food became increasingly scarce. In early 1917, protests grew in strength and a number of strikes broke out. On  March 8 (February 28 un­der the old Russian calendar), the women of Petrograd took to the streets, demanding bread and peace. Women working at the city’s textile factories went on strike, carrying other groups of workers with them. Within a few days, the movement had led to a general strike.

On March 11, the Tsar ordered the military to open fire on demonstrators and 40 people were killed. The same evening, one of the city’s military garrisons mutinied in protest at the decision to attack the workers. The fol­lowing morning, the mutiny spread throughout the regiment. When other regiments were brought in to quell the uprising, they joined the mutineers.

As in the revolutionary period of 1905, Soviets (workers’ councils) were set up. The Soviets were both local and regional in character. Workers, soldiers, and peasants elected representatives to them. The movement spread across the country and the Tsar had no option but to resign. This became known as the February Revolution.

Before abdicating, the Tsar appointed Prince Lvov to head the government, the Council of Ministers. He was soon replaced by Alexander Kerensky. Neither was willing to end the war. Instead, a major offensive was launched in the summer of 1917. This triggered spontaneous uprisings against the government in Petrograd and Moscow, but as the revolts were confined to the cities, the government was able to suppress them. After that defeat, the movement lost impetus for a while. The power of the Soviets was weak­ened and the Bolshevik Party, which had been legalised at the time of the February revolution, was once against outlawed.

However, the movement soon regained strength. Peasants began to seize the property of landowners. Faith in the unelected provisional government diminished. Many began to place greater trust in the governing bodies they themselves built up. In August, there were 600 Soviets in the country, rep­resenting 23 million voters.7 By October there were 900 Soviets.8

Many regiments declared that they would no longer take orders from the government but would answer only to the Soviets. In practice, this meant that the revolution had been successfully completed as power now lay with the elected Soviets. When the Second Pan-Russian Congress of the Soviets was held on 5 November,9 the Bolsheviks were in a majority. Of the 650 delegates attending the congress, 390 supported the ‘Bolsheviki’.10

The storming and occupation of the Winter Palace (commonly referred to as the October Revolution) on the night from 6 to 7 November was not much of a storming at all. There was hardly any opposition.

More people died during the making of Eisenstein’s classic film about the revolution, October, than in the actual revolution. The fall of the Winter Palace merely swept away one of the vestiges of power of the old regime. When this was announced at the Second Congress, a decree was adopted transferring all power to the Soviets of Workers’, Soldiers’ and Peasants’ Deputies.

After the October Revolution, the socialist government immediately began honouring its promises. It was well aware that attempts would be made to bring down the new regime, and believed that if peasants were given their land, workers were given control of their factories, oppressed nationalities were given self-determination, and everybody peace, the revolution would be better equipped to stave off counter-revolutionary attacks.

On November 28 1917, the Bolshevik-led government negotiated a truce along the entire Eastern Front, and in early December peace talks with Ger­many began in Brest-Litovsk. The main opposition parties, the Mensheviks and the Social Revolutionaries, argued strongly in favour of continuing the war. They justified this by referring to Russia’s obligations towards her old allies on the Western Front (Britain, France and others), and patriotism: Germany and the other Central Powers were occupying large areas of west­ern Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and the Baltic States.

Prior to the October Revolution, the Bolsheviks had unanimously agreed that if the working class took control of Russia, all the warring parties were to be offered a just peace without any annexation of territory or payment of war damages. Should the imperialist powers refuse to accept this, the Bolsheviks would defend the socialist state while at the same time advocat­ing and supporting revolt against the imperialist powers. They argued that this line would most benefit the struggle for international socialism.

Most of the Bolshevik leaders continued to pursue this line after the October Revolution. However, when Germany refused to agree to a just peace, Lenin realised that the Russian army was no longer in a condition to continue the war. Soldiers, who were often peasants, hurried home to make sure they would not be left out when the Church’s and the landown­ers’ property was parcelled out. The land-reform decree had hastened the disintegration of the army.

As Lenin saw it, a separate peace with the German generals, even if it were achieved on extremely unfavourable terms, would hasten the socialist revo­lution in Germany and the rest of Europe. In particular, it would ensure that a valuable example was set: in the East, a socialist Soviet state in peace, and in the West, two imperialist blocs locked in bloody war.

There was, of course, a risk that an end to hostilities on the Eastern Front would make it easier for Germany to wage war on the Western Front, thus encouraging chauvinism in Germany. Stalin and Zinoviev, who supported Lenin’s call for an immediate peace, argued that the Russian revolution was worth saving even if such a move delayed the German revolution. Lenin was forced to dissociate himself openly and categorically from this line of thinking. He retorted that the German revolution was more important than the Russian, as a revolution in an advanced capitalist state would be of much greater benefit to the working class of the world.11

Trotsky took a position midway between Lenin and those that wanted to wage a revolutionary war. His position became known as “neither war nor peace”. He argued that the Russian soldiers should simply lay down their arms and leave the front; without the Soviet government signing a humiliat­ing peace agreement. This would show the workers of the world that Russia had peaceful intentions and was unwilling to sign an unjust pact. In fact, this policy was adopted by the Bolsheviks for a brief period. But when the German troops continued to advance eastwards despite the refusal of the Russian troops to fight, Trotsky sided with Lenin. The international Labour Movement, he thought, would understand that the Russian government had no alternative.

At a meeting of the Bolsheviks’ party executive, Lenin’s line was approved by the narrowest of margins. On 3 March, the government signed an agree­ment with Germany and the Central Powers on less favourable terms than those originally offered by the Germans. Russia was to pay war damages of 300 million gold roubles and was also to concede an area of land equivalent to a quarter of its pre-war territory. Southern Russia and Ukraine, both of which had also been drawn into the revolution and had active workers’ councils, were taken over by Germany.12

The Russian Bolsheviks showed that the congress decision of the Interna­tional could be followed. They carried out a socialist revolution and they brought the war to an end. However, the programme of the International was a programme for the international Labour Movement as a whole. The Bolsheviks alone could only partially implement it. Although they made peace, they were unable to push through the just peace they wanted. For that they needed the help of the other leaders of the Second International.

German resistance to the war

In Germany, resistance to the war was organised by left Social Democrats led by Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Liebknecht, Clara Zetkin and Franz Mehring. At first, they were isolated and under severe pressure. When the first vote for war credits was to be taken in the German Parliament, Liebknecht op­posed it at a meeting of the party’s parliamentary group, but bowed to the party whip and voted in favour on 4 August, 1914. Subsequently, having been criticised by a group of industrial workers with leading positions in the Stuttgart party organisation he acknowledged that he had been “deeply shaken” and that “you are quite right in criticising me” for voting for cred­its. When the German government again asked the Reichstag for more money to finance the war effort, Karl Liebknecht was the only MP to vote against.13 In his speech to the Reichstag, he called for a swift peace without further territorial conquest.

In the spring of 1915, the German Left started a new newspaper, Die Internationale, in which Rosa Luxemburg wrote an editorial calling for the reconstruction of the International. The government immediately banned the newspaper, and charges of treason were brought against Luxemburg, Zetkin and Mehring. Rosa Luxemburg was already serving a prison sen­tence at the time, having been convicted before the war for inciting people to refuse the call-up. In December 1915, a score of Social Democratic MP’s voted against further war credits.

In January 1916, the supporters of Die Internationale founded a left faction in the German Social Democratic Party – the Spartacus League. On Mayday the Spartacists headed a demonstration of 10 000 in Berlin. Karl Liebknecht spoke on the theme ‘Down with the war. Down with the Government’. He was immediately arrested and sentenced to two and a half years in prison. Widespread protests followed. In Berlin, 55 000 workers from the city’s ammunition factories came out on strike. In other places, too, strikes and demonstrations were organised. Thousands of workers were imprisoned or sent off to war, or both. Consequently, socialist propaganda reached the soldiers at the front as well.14

As the anti-war movement spread, the chauvinist leadership of the German Social Democratic Party, SPD, felt more and more threatened. So it expelled everybody who voiced any opposition. In April 1917 those expelled formed the Independent Social Democratic Party (Unabhängige Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands, or USPD). Even old Social Democratic leaders such as Eduard Bernstein and Karl Kautsky, who had become more critical of the war as popular support for it faded, joined the USPD. Rosa Luxemburg’s and Karl Liebknecht’s Spartacists operated as an independent revolutionary group within the USPD.

The leadership of the old SPD – a party that while diminishing in size was still larger than the USPD – was led by careerists such as Friedrich Ebert and Philip Scheidemann. Ebert was a monarchist and “detested the revolu­tion like the plague”. In his appeals to party officials he urged them to show “loyalty to the fatherland”. 15

The German war machine had been in steady decline since the United States entered the war. It was also becoming increasingly difficult to main­tain supply lines to both fronts. In July 1917, a majority in the German Re­ichstag called for an unconditional peace. The government manoeuvred the resolution off the agenda and the war continued. The Bolshevik Revolu­tion in November 1917 effectively led to the withdrawal of Russia from the War, but the defeat of Germany on the Western Front remained a certainty. By 1918, German troops were forced to retreat in large numbers, and the General Staff also called for peace negotiations. Kaiser Wilhelm’s Chancel­lor still refused.

Mutiny and uprising

A wave of unrest swept the country. At the end of October, sailors in Kiel mutinied when their ship was ordered out on a suicide mission. The sailors disarmed their officers and returned to port, where 580 of them were jailed. The response was immediate: 40 000 sailors and dock workers protested and a general strike developed. Soon, a council of workers and soldiers was in control of the entire city.16

From Kiel, the uprising spread to Hamburg, Lübeck, Munich and many more cities. As in Russia in 1905 and 1917, democratic councils of workers and soldiers emerged in the course of the struggle. On 7 November 1918, the ‘Council of Workers, Soldiers and Peasants’ in Munich announced that it had taken control. They appealed to the citizens of Munich: “We ask all of you to help, so that the inevitable transition may be effected quickly, eas­ily and peacefully. In this age of meaningless rampant murder, we abhor all bloodshed. Every human life should be sacred. Stay calm and help us build up the new world. Socialist fratricide will no more be seen in Bavaria. The working masses will be united once again on the revolutionary base now established. Long live the Bavarian Republic! Long live peace! Long live the creative work of all people!”17 On 9 November, the revolt reached the capital, Berlin. The Chancellor of the Reich announced his resignation and the abdication of the Kaiser. The Kaiser fled the country. Two days later Germany signed an armistice. Again, just like in Russia and in Sweden, it was the working class that stopped the warmongers.

However, unlike in Russia, the revolution was not carried through to its con­clusion. For another four years revolution and counter-revolution swayed back and forth. Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht were arrested by Freikorps officers and murdered.18 Many years later it emerged that Schei­demann, via the SPD’s own secret police, ‘Section 14’, had put a bounty of 100 000 marks on their heads.19 The leaders that replaced them were not up to the task of leading the revolution to victory. The failure of the German Revolution meant that the road to another World War was open.


1 Zeth Höglund: Från Branting till Lenin, 1953

2 Documents 1907 -1916: Lenin’s Struggle for a Revolutionary International

3 Knut Bäckström: Arbetarrörelsen i Sverige, del 2, 1971

4 Zeth Höglund: Från Branting till Lenin, 1953

5 Ibid.

6 Since 1903, the Russian Social Democratic Party had been split into two factions – the

Bolsheviks (the word means majority) and the Mensheviks (minority). In 1912, they split permanently into two parties, both of which called themselves social democratic. As all social democratic parties were forbidden by the Czar, they appeared in the Duma under other names.

7 Leon Trotsky: The History of the Russian Revolution, 1988

8 Charles Bettelheim: Class Struggles in the USSR, 1976.

9 23 October under the old Russian calendar

10 In Bolshevism, Alan Woods give an exact breakdown of who supported the forming of

a Bolshevik government. 300 belonged to the Bolshevik Party. The remaining 90 either belonged to the left-wing of either the Social-Revolutionaries or the Mensheviks.

11 Alan Woods and Ted Grant: Lenin and Trotsky: What They Really Stood For, 2000

12 Isaac Deutscher: The Prophet Armed, 1973

13 Documents: 1907-1916: Lenin’s Struggle for a Revolutionary International

14 Introduction by Bo Gustafsson to the 1971 Swedish edition of Rosa Luxemburg’s book,

The Crisis of Social Democracy

15 ibid

16 Rob Sewell: Germany: 1918-1923, from Revolution to Counter-Revolution, 1988

17 1918-19. Ein Lesebuch, 1979

18 Under the protection and command of the social democratic minister Noske, private

armies were set up, as well as special legions of unemployed officers and soldiers – the Freikorps – to crush the revolution.

19 Paul Frölich: Rosa Luxemburg, 1939